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Bike queuing Dutch style

26 August, 2013

Thijs van der Heijden suggests we could improve the way we use bike lanes and bike boxes.


Perhaps it’s because I’m Dutch, but the single-file bicycle queue has puzzled me ever since I moved to Australia about two years ago. It seems so far off from my riding experience anywhere in Europe. I figured that Australians are more used to driving a car than riding a bike, and cars just don’t line up that well in parallel. Needless to say, I am one of those riders that routinely rides to the front of the queue if I see there is empty space to stand, hoping that action will be copied by my fellow riders. To be clear, my behaviour is not about showing off or jumping the queue. Although I’m not slow, I’m no match for the really fast riders with my business attire and flat bar bike with mudguards and a pannier rack. Instead, my actions are motivated by road design features that enable multi-file queuing, efficiency, safety and health considerations. Let me focus on those that advocate parallel queuing.

Many larger intersections these days feature neatly painted bike boxes that can easily accommodate two or three riders. Why would road designers include these if they didn’t intend for riders to use them? In addition, any bike lane that can properly carry that name will be wide enough to hold two riders in parallel. I admit for some of us the risk of having to stand next to a complete stranger at arm’s length might be daunting. At the same time, who knows you might just end up in an easy morning flirt that could make your day before you even get to work?

It is much more visible to have two or three cyclists in the bike box at the lights. It forces the cars behind to take off at an easier pace when the lights turn green again. Result: smaller speed differences between cyclists and motorists and a smoother traffic flow. In peak-hour traffic, often motorists will only be able to cover a short distance before joining the next queue anyway, so their loss of time would be minimal (although I do admit they may not realise that). As for that bunch of bikes: if more than 20 years of daily riding in the Netherlands are anything to go by, that bunch will be fine; parallel waiting cyclists will figure out a way to get back in line pretty quickly, long before they reach the other end of the intersection.

Being in front of the queue of cars rather than next to it will also help motorists notice you, because you’re right in their main view rather than in their blind spot. With the plethora of things that compete for the attention of the driver already while waiting at traffic lights, it can’t hurt to just place yourself prominently in the centre of their view. An additional benefit is that by being visible as a compact group, we demonstrate our diversity. Perhaps this will help to get motorists to acknowledge that cycling as a means of transportation is not only limited to guys in lycra?

Then there’s efficiency. One can question whether the morning or evening rush hour is a desirable time to set a personal best, but the fact is that some riders are going to be faster than others, and will be very keen to leave the slower riders behind. Given that observation, queuing up in parallel at the lights rather than in single-file will enable the fast riders to leave all the slow riders behind with one blasting acceleration instead of a whole bunch of mini-sprints.

Even when space is too limited to have all riders line up next to one another, the parallel queue will be much shorter than the single-file, giving the fast riders the chance to pass the remaining slower riders much more quickly. The big ‘if’ here of course is whether the faster riders will have to sharpen their acceleration-from-stand-still skills. But hey, a bit of training variety won’t hurt, right?

Finally, being at the front of the car queue rather than being stuck between them is likely to reduce exposure to fine particles of motor vehicle exhaust. It makes it just a bit more pleasant to take that deep breath before taking off again when the lights turn green!

Compare Bike Snob NYC on what he terms “shoaling”

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44 Comments leave one →
  1. Rachel Bucknall permalink
    27 August, 2013 7:50 pm

    I’m not against what the writer suggests, but I rarely do it for the following reasons:

    – It’s illegal to change lanes in an Australian intersection, so I’ve always been unsure on the legalities to overtaking within one.

    – In my experience, getting ‘back in line’ is a messy affair. There don’t seem to be the same unspoken rules about it and so I can’t be confident what my fellow cyclists will do. This makes me uncomfortable, especially given that intersections are danger spots for riders and the last thing I want to do is ride without confidence and predictability!

    If I’m confident the rider is much slower than I am and the road is wide enough to give us enough space, I do queue in parallel. But most of the time I avoid it. What are other people’s experiences?

    • Hoo Lowder permalink
      29 August, 2013 12:48 pm

      Wholeheartedly agree Rachel. Cyclists overtaking at a stop achieve nothing but getting in the way! They get in the way of other cyclists who are quick off the mark, and they get in the way of the motor vehicles accelerating faster then cyclists, even those vehicles in the second lane. There’s also the risk of inexperienced/unskilled cyclists wobbling in a crooked line as they start moving.

  2. Carolyn permalink
    1 September, 2013 7:00 pm

    I feel that this would increase the anger of motorists towards cyclists even more.. C.

  3. Tim permalink
    5 September, 2013 6:10 pm

    Absolutely agree with Carolyn. a nice idea in theory, but it ignores the fact that most Australians consider the road to be the rightful domain of the car, and can become very indignant towards anyone who gets in their way.
    Australian motorists barely tolerate cyclists at the best of times. Why aggravate them during an already stressful peak-hour commute? When push comes to shove, they’re the ones protected by a metal box, not you …

  4. jackie permalink
    6 September, 2013 10:03 pm

    That bicycle box at the front of the queue usually has a car sitting in it in my experience!

    Sadly I agree that car drivers here would become even more aggressive if they wait for us to sort ourselves out if too many riders go into an empty bicycle box. As a slower rider I will often invite riders queuing behind to squeeze past me before the lights change if there is room to do so.

  5. Phil permalink
    11 September, 2013 3:59 pm

    Yep unfornuantely I have to agree with all of the above comments!! It’s a sad state of affairs and I commute in a large regional city in Vic. It’s no different here, apart from the actual volume of traffic.

  6. Mike permalink
    11 September, 2013 4:04 pm

    Nothing more frustrating than having to pass the same cyclist multiple times, maybe they are well intentioned but it is just pushing in. Passing a slow ‘pusher-in’ means a cyclists unnecessarily has to go into the traffic flow to overtake. The bike box in front of cars is a silly idea anyway. As noted in previous responses, it gets cars agro, it puts riders in the path of cars unnessarily and creates a slow down of bikes due to the need to merge back into the bike lane. So whether you ride a bike or drive a car – stop pushing in, wait your turn, stick to the left of the lane (watch those car doors!) and enjoy your trip.

  7. John permalink
    11 September, 2013 4:11 pm

    Agree with all the comments. As a rider and driver, I try and respect that I don’t wish to hold up cars just because I am impatient on a bike. Sometimes cars respectively wait for an opportunity to get past safely – only to have to start again some disctance down the road with the same cyclists. I do get it when there are multiple bikes but I hope being courteous when on a bike helps all.

  8. Big Al permalink
    11 September, 2013 4:17 pm

    I agree with Jackie. The bike boxes we now have at intersections are usually full of cars including cars turning left in the bike lane.
    A nice idea and given a perfect relationship between cyclists and motorists it could improve things greatly. However, in the current riding climate it will not work.

  9. Hugh permalink
    11 September, 2013 4:23 pm

    I don’t block cars at intersections so they can turn left on the green arrow – we’re all road users. It does depend on the intersection layout though. On another note: a pedestrian is going to get seriosuly hurt stepping out without looking into the bike lane on La Trobe St Melbourne at the exit of Central Station. The amount of near misses I’ve had is ridiculous. Suggest putting up a barrier. It’s not helped by the fact it’s a downhill stretch.

    • Anthonyo permalink
      11 September, 2013 5:14 pm

      I know that intersection. Last night some idiots standing in the bike lane were yelled at by a cyclist. It was a close call. For safety the cyclist should have slowed. It is a complete mess with cars blocking pedestrians from crossing safely almost every light change. My main issue with it are the cyclists who do not warn the pedestrians when they are late going through an intersection. A simple yell of “Bike” would do. I often have discussions with fellow pedestrians at this intersection who complain about cyclists going through red lights that the lights change quicker than the cyclist can get through the intersection.

  10. Catherine permalink
    11 September, 2013 4:24 pm

    Completely agree with the writer and not the people commenting. I go into the middle of the box everytime, even when there are no other cyclists. It is the safest place to be and makes sure cars do not try and squeeze past through the intersection (they can pass me after the intersection if there is no cycle lane). The more cyclists do it, the more cars will accept it (I have been yelled at many times and I ignore them all).

    • Hoo Lowder permalink
      11 September, 2013 5:02 pm

      Do you mean you passed them and you are now stopping them from passing you? And, by “middle of the box”, do you mean centered in the lane? Why pass them in the first place?

    • Big Al permalink
      11 September, 2013 5:32 pm

      I don’t understand your logic Catherine! Do you really believe that placing yourself in the middle of the road in front of a vehicle that will accelerate rapidly is a safe place to be? It is nice to demand rights to road space, but I think commonsense needs to prevail.

      • James permalink
        16 September, 2013 2:31 pm

        Big Al, do you really believe that you are in any less danger being passed by a motorist within the left lane, than riding in front of a motorist in the left lane?
        It often happens that the people who ride close to the gutter all the time, trying to accomodate impatient motorists, will end up having them squeeze by or bump them off in a failed passing maneuver.
        If the left lane is too narrow to share, I’d rather ride far enough from the curb to make it obvious I’m not encouraging them to share the lane.
        Mind you, I’m not condoning the bike box is always the right place to stop. I have no issue taking up a space further back in the queue – but in the middle of the lane once I stop at lights.

  11. Steve permalink
    11 September, 2013 4:26 pm

    This is probably a cultural thing. The Netherlands obviously have a long history of bike riding and this parallel riding is normal. I wonder if those of us from English background ( I know where not all from English heritage) follow the tradition of queuing.

    To me what has been suggested in this article is nothing more than straight forward pushing in, and for some reason I hate it when someone pushes in. I believe in waiting your turn.:)

  12. 11 September, 2013 4:33 pm

    What can be done to make Thijs’s understanding work. I ask because I am sure he is correct in his interpretation of what is supposed to happen. But I agree with the other comments as it stands many drivers just treat the green box as part of their lane, and police don’t do anything about it, and just single filing, as Thijs describes it, gets lots of agro from drivers, I have been blasted for merely entering the green box too the left!

  13. Pete permalink
    11 September, 2013 4:35 pm

    You, Thijs, are one of the cyclists that really annoys me on my daily commute down StKilda road. The slow cyclist who pushes past the rest of us who are waiting patiently in a queue at the traffic light. Then we overtake you (an inherently dangerous manoeuvre) so we can ride at our own speed, only to have you push past if we get caught together at the next lights.

    • FlatPeach permalink
      30 October, 2013 11:06 am

      Are you stating you’re in a car? If so, if it’s not safe to overtake, then don’t. You wouldn’t do it if to your child/partner/grandma, why do it to a stranger? If you’re on a bike, and your faster, wouldn’t you take off faster than the slower rider anyway?
      Your statement doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to be honest.

      • quimbylips permalink
        31 October, 2013 1:49 pm

        I think Pete means he is a cyclist but his issue is slower cyclists who use the box to push in front of other cyclists already stopped there. Very infuriating, but not limited to only bike boxes. I think it’s a slightly different issue Pete is raising, though I sympathise completely with him.

      • David Lewis permalink
        31 October, 2013 10:53 pm

        Traffic light bicycle boxes are placed there for the safety of the cyclist, to isolate them from vehicular traffic and allow them to move off before motor vehicles which would otherwise squeeze them without a care, and dangerously out of the way.

        They are a legal facility. The motorist should wait until the cyclist has moved off and steered left to the side of the road before overtaking. It is all about sharing the road, and nothing to do with impeding the motorist.

        Most enthusiast road cyclists can get away before the traffic anyway , and are therefore of no hindrance to the inpatient motorist.

        Any perceived hindrance is usually claimed by a selfish Australian motorist, not prepared to share the road, who from my experience of cycling a lifetime in Europe and the UK, are the worst in the western world.



  14. Paul permalink
    11 September, 2013 4:43 pm

    Of course the answer to getting out of the way of cars and staying safe at intersections is to wait until it is safe to do so then jump the lights. Get clicked in, get moving and get over to the left before they catch you. Pretty simple really.

  15. Maddy permalink
    11 September, 2013 4:47 pm

    I think your observations are interesting and are completely logical. I believe a major factor is the relationship between cars and cyclists, and the feeling of being inferior to motorists and not respected on the road. Being aware that a bicycle slowing down the traffic can agrivate car users and put one in their firing line. The shift in these dinamics is essential for safety and confidence using a bicycle. I only wish bicycle use was more accepted by the wider community within the city, like many cities in Europe. We will get there… Eventually!

  16. accordion3 permalink
    11 September, 2013 7:33 pm

    When I’m riding the cargo bike & have to stop at the lights, I frequently suggest to other cyclists that they go ahead of me. Only once has a guy declined. He was very tired! Others usually smile, ask about the bike then take off.
    On my usual bike I like to take off in the order in which we all arrived. Plenty of time for the speedy riders to overtake later.

  17. Geoff permalink
    12 September, 2013 12:36 am

    As a cyclist from New Zealand I am used to trying to get from A to B in the fastest time, mostly in the sense of keeping fit. Utilizing the ready designed spots at the start of intersections is ideal for achieving this. I find I can easily keep ahead of buses in doing this. Yes Australian driver’s do tend to be short fused (I don’t know why that is?), but no one in their right mind is going to scratch their precious car by running you over (unless they are a psychopath or just another road rage idiot). Best bet, use what’s available, and ride safe, be visible, and ride defensively.

  18. Axel permalink
    12 September, 2013 1:12 am

    Europe had lots of people on bikes long before cars were invented, and in Australia bikes came along as an after-thought. Thats where the difference in attitude begins.

  19. 12 September, 2013 7:06 am

    Years ago I used to push to the front … even before the box !
    These days I’m more interested in timing the lights. If I do need to stop I often stop a few cars back. It’s the same really…

    If others have squeezes up to the front there is plenty of time to ‘monster them’ with my ‘calves of steel’ further down the lane …

    Another thing…. 3 ‘grid positions’ back nothing really happens when the light turns ‘blue’, so you can get rolling anyway without the pressure of cars racing to nowhere….

    As for filling the box, or taking the lane there are many times that you need to do it, but just check that we ‘cool, breezy Cyclist living the dream’ aren’t getting all hyped up and slip into the ‘my journeys more important than yours’ attitude.

    Sometimes I use the ‘Box principal’ 3 or more cars back.
    What’s the point of rushing up the front and doing it there when you have the right to take the lane and wait at the point you arrived at the cue?

    In this ‘I’m in control of everything manoeuvre ‘ I just take a good part of the lane, behind the last cueing car, and wait like the rest of the vehicles present. If a cars queues behind me I think they might just respect my place in the cue … I even use a fast twitch reflex of my ‘pedal leg’ to mimic a ‘highly tuned idling engine’ ready to be unleashed.

    The only exception is if there is a big, long cue … I will filter up and find a reasonable space in the lane closer to the front….

    When the lights change I get going, and upon reaching Mv (maximum velocity) I move over to let them go with a nonchalant elbow flick, royal wave or knowing smile, depending on my mood.

    Forget bitching around in the box I’m just saying …..
    Timing… Cool, Breezy Timing …. if anything is going to get a motorist out of their predicament its stuff like that …

  20. smitho permalink
    12 September, 2013 7:40 am

    It is “legal” for a bicycle to pass stationery cars on the left hand side and move to the front of the queue at an intersection. It takes bikes out of the traffic flow and places them into the sight lines of motorists and also allows them to move into the bike lanes faster than waiting for all the cars in front to move off……you are slowing down the cars once not multiple times as they wait for multiple bikes to get up too speed and into the bike lane.

    • Kevbal2000 permalink
      12 September, 2013 4:04 pm

      Yes, it is often lawful to pass on the left of a vehicle. But in regard to being 3 abreast, if they have stopped in the box then the third cyclist is NOT overtaking the other two.

      > >

  21. Rafael permalink
    12 September, 2013 8:57 am

    I see more people disagree with the article than not. Like Catherine, I am one who agrees! Whenever there is a bicycle box at an intersection, I stand in the middle of it because it is there for a reason. I totally agree with Thijs & the reasons he exposed so I’m not going to repeat them here but it surprised me to see how many fellow-riders see this as bad behaviour, I don’t get it! Boxes are there, we’re not riding the whole time on the cars lane, only at intersections & if the fast guys chose to stand in lane & hate to overtake multiple times the same riders, then get on the box to keep your position…!!! What’s the big deal?!?!?

    • Big Al permalink
      12 September, 2013 9:33 am

      It could be Rafael, that the designers of the ‘bike boxes’ are wrong. It seems to me that to place a number of bicycles in front of cars waiting to accelerate across an intersection is conceptually flawed.

      • Rafael permalink
        12 September, 2013 3:44 pm

        We’re talking about an intersection, there are traffic lights & motorists know they’re there. You seem to be referring to the start point of a race track, where drivers are revving up their engines ready to take off full speed!!!
        Also, the people who designed them didn’t just come up with them at the last minute… City planners, engineers, people who study how traffic behaves design these things, years of study in cities where bicycles are widely used have led to what we use today, please Big Al, don’t act (or write) like you were born yesterday…!

      • Stef permalink
        16 September, 2013 1:28 pm

        These bike boxes (and not only those) are flawed designs. Many bike lanes could be designed more logical (and safer). But it seems to me that the planners responsible for it have probably never ridden a bike, so they don’t know how to do it properly.

        I’m European myself, and have ridden my bike to school from an early age (as we Europeans do). I live in Melbourne since 4 years now, and I keep being surprised on a daily basis by how illogical some of these lane designs are.

        On another note: I think these bike boxes can provide space for cyclists doing a hook turn. But then again: there is usually a car stopped in it anyway.

  22. Nigel permalink
    12 September, 2013 9:49 am

    We have enough problems with motorists that we don’t need to antagonize them anymore.

    By bunching up at the lights you are impeding the motorists behind – it takes time for a bunch of cyclists to get organised into single file after the lights go green and the roads here are such that cyclists two-a-breast encroach into the left traffic lane..

    By pushing to the front you are potentially passing cyclists who ride faster than you which means they will have to pass you once the traffic is moving again, and to pass they have to go round, potentially, into the traffic (especially if the passee has flat bars and panniers).

    We ask motorists to be patient with us, we should be patient with ourselves.
    Wait your turn and fit into the line where you belong.

  23. Davey boy permalink
    12 September, 2013 11:23 am

    Interesting to see how our ‘fixedness’ is being challenged by this article. I appreciate any ideas that work within the current environment that help us to see things differently. If it works elsewhere maybe it might just work here. Otherwise an adaption of the idea could be useful. Thanks Thijs for challenging the norm

  24. James permalink
    12 September, 2013 4:01 pm

    Road design engineers come up with plenty of really bad designs that apparently comply with road design standards in Australia.
    WRT bike boxes, yes it probably annoys motorists to slip up beside and take up residence in front of them. Do I care? Well, yes if they’re then going to get impatient and try to squeeze by. So I pick and choose when I use the bike box. If I’m with a bunch, I’d prefer not to, and the bunch take up space in the queue of cars. The ones behind still take off slow, and the ones that just went by don’t get all hot under the collar because that bunch of riders they just managed to get around went and filtered passed. If I’m alone I more likely use the bike box so I’m visible, but I’m able to move out of the way of any following vehicles pretty quickly – unless I need to take control of a narrow lane for some reason.
    BTW, I’ve not come across many – if any – bike lanes that are really wide enough for two riders to ride two abreast. If the lane is that wide it’s normally just another vehicle lane.

  25. 12 September, 2013 4:13 pm

    I’m a confident cyclist and I ride to the front of EVERY intersection, especially so when there’s a bus. I’d rather accelerate quickly and the bus can go around me with plenty of space.

  26. David Lewis permalink
    14 September, 2013 12:57 am

    Have been an enthusiast club and road cyclist now for 63 years, most of my cycling in the UK, and the last 25 years in Perth WA, with annual forays cycling in Europe.

    I observe a tremendous difference between the attitude of the motorist towards the cyclist in the UK,and mainland Europe, when compared with Perth.

    The European driver accepting and courteous towards the cyclist, whilst the Australian driver is discourteous, impatient and intolerant, and on many occasions downright aggressive, just to save a few seconds, not prepared to share the road, A culture issue and no question, an overriding reason for conflicts between cyclist and motorist.

    classed as a ‘vehicle’ by law with a legal right to full use Australian motorists who doggedly fail to accept this.

    Ride your bike as if you were a car driver, take the lane when necessary, be observant, make timely hand signals of your intention and the intelligent driver will usually respect you.

    • James permalink
      16 September, 2013 9:55 am

      You’re a few years ahead of me, David, and I agree wholeheartedly with your comment.

  27. Chris permalink
    15 September, 2013 3:47 pm

    It is actually quite intriguing that people consider cyclists “stalling” or “holding up” traffic. We are talking about 4-5 seconds!! If car drivers are thinking that they are losing precious time, because they have to wait those seconds until a group of cyclists reshuffles itself, I have to say that those drivers are not in their right mindset. But unfortunately, Australian drivers often consider a red light situation as a race track.
    Saying this, I am always using the boxes. They are there for a reason, as others have pointed out. They make you more visible and cars have nothing to do in them BY LAW and cyclists have all the RIGHT to be in there. I agree with a previous comment that the police do nothing about this, adding that they target only cyclists’ bad behaviour. Don’t get me wrong here, I think that this is correct to do, as those cyclists also break the rules. If we want to be taken seriously as part of the traffic, we need to obey to the rules, but so do the car drivers.
    I don’t think that Thijs wanted to say to that everybody should push to the front of the line, but that we should take up the entire box, when there is space.

  28. 30 October, 2013 11:25 pm

    I always go in the box – it’s what it’s for, and it’s legal. It’s also safer. Even if there’s no box I often go in front of the line (though I won’t spread over the whole lane) so that I’m visible. Car driver gets angry that’s their problem. Do we really have so much fear that an aggro car driver might run us down? Really? Personally I think cyclists are a little over-sensitive to car drivers anger.

    I *don’t* go in front of other cyclists and block them (pet peeve of mine) unless I’ve already observed that I’m faster than them. Even then I line up beside them, not in front.

    Bike box is more visible (especially for trucks and buses), more efficient, less exhaust, gives us a chance to pass (often bike lane is single – are passing lanes the sole prerogative of cars now?), and in peak traffic in the city you’re not holding up any traffic whatsoever (just watch next time – pick a car, compare the car he was behind at this intersection and the next – it will be the same one, or almost).

    I know I’m repeating myself – it’s the law. If car drivers don’t like it, then we have an obligation, nay, a duty! to use the boxes more and more until it is normalised. *Not* observing the road laws because a driver might get angry…where does that logic lead? (and before you say injured or dead – I’ve seen accidents and been hit myself, but never by an angry one, Angry means he knows you’re there).

    • Big Al permalink
      31 October, 2013 7:56 am

      Angry bird or not Angry bird, being hit by a car is usually an unpleasant experience (such are the laws of physics). I just don’t see the point of cyclists putting themselves at risk because the facility (however silly the facility is) is there).

      • James permalink
        31 October, 2013 9:03 am

        What is the risk? Do you have statistics that support your claim? How many cyclists who have used the bike box have been hit from behind by an angry motorist, compared with those who have been side swiped while trying to ride as far left as possible to not delay a drivers progress?

      • quimbylips permalink
        31 October, 2013 9:16 am

        Thanks James. My point exactly – you’ve probably said it better than me. 🙂

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